Disclaimer: I’m not an expert! I’m just a student of Electrical Engineering who happens to be curious about Artificial Intelligence (see my previous post).
Is the Singularity just around the corner? Will Artificial Intelligence destroy us all? Will it be our doom or the cure?
Since the recent renaissance of Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, questions like these are floating around in the minds of many. There’s a ton of thoughts, opinions, articles, podcasts and books on this topic. Thinking about this myself recently, I couldn’t help but remember some topics I covered in school which seem very relevant to this discussions. It reminded me of what I learned about the early 19th century.
The Age of Scientific Optimism (and Despair)
In my high school’s German class, we read a book that German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote in 1816 called The Sandman1. The plot of the book isn’t really relevant here (and the main character loses his mind at the end and commits suicide – that kind of book), but there’s an interesting character: Olimpia. She’s a girl the main character falls in love with, only to discover that she’s not a human but a machine, an automated wooden doll.
The early 19th century, when The Sandman was written, was surely an exciting time to be alive. It was some 50 years prior that Benjamin Franklin did his famous research on electricity, but around 1800 scientific progress really took off. In 1791 Luigi Galvani publishes his research on how electricity is the basis for communication between neurons. In 1800 Alessandro Volta builds the first battery. In 1821 Michael Farraday invents the electric motor and six years later Georg Ohm describes the link between voltage and current. In short: Electrical Engineering was born.2
All these discoveries and inventions had their impact on society. Some people were optimistic. It seemed like nothing is impossible and every problem of mankind nigh on solved. Yet, others were scared or cynical. And I think this is reflected by the literature of that time. Take Jules Verne, who is considered one of the fathers of science fiction. He started writing in the early 1850s and told stories about man travelling to the center of the earth, around the world in 80 days or under the sea for twenty thousand leagues. His books are full of scientific optimism and innovation. He dreamed up submarines powered by electricity and used for warfare and scientific research. He introduced the concept of a motor powered and propeller driven aircraft. Considering that all of these things were at most in their early stages at this time, the literature of Jules Verne was truly ahead of its time.3
But other authors didn’t share this hope. In Hoffman’s The Sandman man reached the ability to create mechanical beings just like themself. And yet this very creature leads to the main character losing sanity and commiting suicide. Or think of Frankenstein, a novel by Mary Shelley published in 1818: Victor Frankenstein develops a technique to make non-living matter come to life. But when he goes on to create a humanoid, he accidentally creates a monster which in the end leads him to death. And interestingly, Jules Verne also had mixed feelings. His lost novel Paris in the Twentieth Century (written in 1863 but published 131 years later in 1994) describes a young man who lives in a dystopian, mechanical 1961 world which is advanced in technology but backwards in culture. He studies literature and the classics only to find that all that counts is business and technology (which may sound a little too familiar to us), in the end dying in despair after losing the love of his life.4
Everything old is new again
Now, it goes without saying that this is only a small and incomplete sampling of 19th century European literature and a blogpost like this can’t do justice to this rich and complex and confusing time period. But I can’t help but to notice the same patterns of thought in our contemporary discussions about the future Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity. Because we’re not the first ones to dream of an utopia where technology will fix all our problems. And conversely, we’re not the first ones to wonder if the technology we invent will be our doom after all.
When looking back at the hopes and fears of the 19th centry, who was right? The optimists or the pessimists? Turns out – looking from today – that neither were completely right. The truth is somewhere in the middle. The scientific progress of the 19th century was at times a curse, but at times a blessing also. And it’s my guess that the same will be true about Artificial Intelligence. And strangely enough, this reminds me of the ancient Scriptures we find in the Bible:
What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, “Look! This is something new”? It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.
See the Wikipedia article. Again, Jules Verne’s predictions are scarily accurate. He describes people driving around in gas-cabs (cars), living in skyscrapers, using picture-telegraphs (fax machines) and sophisticated electrically powered calculators which can send messages to the other end of the world (computers and the internet). ↩